Jeff Jardine

There’s nothing right about housing blight, but the battle never ends

Plywood covers the windows on both stories, the doors and the garage. Trash piles continue to grow in the backyard. Paperwork stapled to the garage door of the bank-owned property details the numerous code violations and orders it to make repairs.

Indeed, this house on Phoenix Avenue in Modesto’s La Loma Neighborhood certainly stands out along a street lined with otherwise well-maintained homes, most about 30 years old and all but that one well-kept. Like so many others throughout Modesto, the place is vacant except for when squatters break in. It’s a frequent target of metal thieves.

“You can see where the wiring has been stripped,” said Julie Erickson, who owns the home next door.

“We’ve had so many (calls about the address),” said Bert Lippert, whose job with the city’s building department is to deal with these blighted properties. “It used to be you had to be a mountain goat or have a ladder to get into the second floors. We finally had to board up the windows upstairs.”

It’s just one problem home in a city that has scores of them, with another added to the list each week on average as neighbors or other residents complain. Some are bank-owned, some by local owners and others by out-of-towners. Either way, the homes are eyesores, unsafe, unsanitary and need to be dealt with. The options range from helping low-income owners get their properties up to code to condemning to fining property owners $1,000 a day until the buildings are brought up to code to demolishing buildings entirely.

“We collected $97,000 off one home and $47,000 from another,” Lippert said. “We take in about $150,000 a year in fines and we have $600,000 in the fund that we use for blighted property abatement.”

Either way, it is a time-consuming process that involves due process and lots of detail.

“We handled 52 of them last year,” Lippert said. He’s working more than two dozen active cases now and those don’t include what the four code-enforcement officers and supervisor in the city’s Neighborhood Preservation Unit handle in getting properties cleaned up, graffiti removed and other issues.

“They’ve handled 4,800 cases (in 2016) and that was before ‘Go Modesto,’ ” Lippert said, referring to the city’s new mobile app for reporting blight and checking the status of progress toward addressing a specific property. The city has dealt with below-code homes ever since it developed building codes.

But the economic downturn that began in 2007 and led to foreclosures and abandonments literally opened the door for trespassers, vagrants, vandals and others to move into the vacant places and trash them.

“That is when we started seeing more squatters,” he said.

Run them off, they come back – often bringing trash with them.

Lippert took me on a brief tour of homes only within a 2-mile radius of City Hall. Several are west of Highway 99. With the exception of the Phoenix Avenue house, he said he encountered evidence of drug use in all of them, finding everything from syringes and hypodermic needles in some to a spoon and other tools for heroin use at another.

Several of the properties, including one on Second Street just a block from Modesto High, are boarded up. It doesn’t matter. Homeless and vagrants break into them anyway. A small dog growled as he protected his food in the backyard of the Second Street home. Clearly, someone had broken into the home and is living there.

Like most others, Lippert’s trying to get the owner to clean it up and fix it up.

“It’s the dirtiest home I’ve ever been in,” he said. “There was a (teenage) girl living in it and going to have a baby. She was going to bring the baby back to this house. I asked her, ‘Where’s your dad?’ She said, ‘He’s living in the garage.’ 

At a place on the 300 block of Ruberto Street, he pointed out where he found heroin paraphernalia resting on a vehicle at the back of the property. The property, he said, is owned by a woman with two small children. A relative invited in the people who brought the narcotics. The home, along with hauling off tons of debris, needs a new roof. He’s trying to help her.

“She has two small kids,” Lippert said. “If you kick them out, then what?”

On the 400 block of Laurel Avenue, squatters moved in behind a home owned by a mother and daughter, trashing the place. The owners, Lippert said, were afraid to contact the city for fear of being fined or forced to pay for cleanup they clearly could not afford. And they were intimidated by the squatters.

He found evidence of drug use in that house and others, and secured a “No trespassing” letter that gave the squatters the option to leave or be arrested.

A visit Thursday to a house on James Street that Lippert condemned turned up drug paraphernalia in the backpacks of the squatters at the house. Of course, they had no idea how it got there.

“They (commonly) say, ‘It’s my buddy’s house. We were just there partying,’ ” Lippert said.

The Phoenix Avenue house is proof that middle-class neighborhoods aren’t exempt from blighted homes. Next-door neighbor Erickson began keeping a log of the problems at the place, the complaints made, the calls to police and the city when problems started over a year ago.

“We’ve tried to buy it,” said Kyle Barker, Erickson’s fiancé. That hasn’t happened.

Instead, Lippert will continue with the legal process, fining the bank that owns it daily until it either pays up or sells the place.

Meanwhile, the plywood stays until the unwanted guests drop by again.